Franco says he's not like his tortured roles

— James Franco is emerging from the iconic shadow of James Dean to be the brooding actor of a new generation.

The 24-year-old won acclaim for last year's TNT movie "James Dean" and was Harry Osborn, the vengeful son of the villainous Green Goblin, in this year's summer blockbuster "Spider-Man."

Now he appears in the drama "City by the Sea" as the homeless, drug-addicted son of a prominent New York City detective played by Robert De Niro, who must investigate his child for the killing of a drug dealer.

Although his hollow-cheeked good looks suit edgy performances and dark moods, Franco says he's not much like his sullen characters.

"I think I'm just a mild-mannered guy," he says, and says no more.

He played a handsome bad-boy on NBC's short-lived high-school series "Freaks & Geeks" in 1999, and met Marla Sokoloff ("The Practice"), his girlfriend of three years, while working on the 2000 teen romantic comedy "Whatever It Takes."

His starring turn in the cable biopic "James Dean" catapulted him to leading-man status. He won a Golden Globe and is up for an Emmy this month for his portrayal of Dean, who became a screen legend despite only three starring films. Dean died at 24 in a 1955 car crash.

Franco next appears as a boy raised among prostitution in the Nicolas Cage-directed drama "Sonny," and is about to begin filming on the World War II rescue story "The Great Raid."

What was the most drastic thing you did to get acquainted with the world of a homeless drug addict for "City by the Sea"?

I spent some time out without money and slept on the streets just to get a feel for it. I went with a friend, we dirtied ourselves up and it was really informative. ... We panhandled and people wouldn't really give us money. Ninety percent would just look away and walk off. So after 12 hours of making one dollar, we were starving, so we made a sign and stood at the freeway entrance. I guess it's that people are stuck in their cars at the (traffic) light and they're forced to look at you. So we made a decent amount of money.

Since you share only a few scenes with De Niro, how did you try to build an emotional connection with his character?

I went in every day and watched him, even if I wasn't working. That way I could just learn from him as an actor and also establish that admiration that translates into longing for the character, while still maintaining that distance.

Your characters in "James Dean," "City by the Sea" and "Spider-Man" all had difficult relationships with their fathers. What's it like for you in real life?

My father and my relationship with him are nothing like that. It's just a matter of taking the story and thinking, "How would I react there?" Everyone has felt some disappointment or strain in a relationship with a parent. I just magnify that.

In the lore of "Spider-Man," your character goes on to become the next Green Goblin. Are you looking forward to wearing that mask in the sequel?

(Laughs and shakes his head.) Well, we start filming early next year, and my guess is that since they've been pretty loyal to the story in the comic book so far, they'll continue to do so. So, we'll see. We'll see.

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